Lack of cash halts Russian aid program

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A joint US-Russian project to bring wind power to northern Russia has been snagged by the harsh reality of the Russian economy. Sponsored by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the program was to install 40 small wind turbines at remote Russian villages served by ageing diesel generators. But so far only 12 have been erected, all of them in wind-diesel systems. The other 28, according to Vahan Gevorgian of NREL, are in warehouses in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk awaiting shipment to the sites.

The program was created by an agreement in 1993 between Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to undertake joint research on renewables. As part of the agreement, the US Agency for International Development bought ten 1.5 kW units and 30, 10 kW machines, from America's Bergey Wind Company, along with inverters, batteries and other accessories, for $1.56 million. For its part the Russian ministry of fuel and energy identified 900 remote villages that could use the turbines and chose 21 of them to demonstrate the technology.

But due to the economic crisis that struck last year, progress has halted. "The local administrations refused to continue with the installation due to a lack of funds," says Gevorgian. "They have other priorities." Although the Russian ministry says 12 turbines have been installed, solid information is hard to come by. One turbine is being carefully monitored so far and is performing well. NREL also hopes to get data on this village's power systems and diesel fuel sales. Computer models predicted fuel savings at the villages of up to 84%.

Potential and skill

Northern Russia has 15 million people without access to a central grid, relying on Soviet-era diesel generators. About 60,000 people are employed delivering diesel fuel in the region. Bitter cold winters and economic problems make delivery difficult and prices high, ranging from $0.40 to over $1.50 a litre, or $5.67 a gallon. Fuel for some locations has to be delivered by helicopter. "Wind is the only local energy resource," Gevorgian points out. "Average wind speeds of six meters per second are common."

Integrating wind into the local diesel systems has proved difficult, however. Many of the generators have only simple on-off controls, and must be started manually, often by two people. Generators are worn out, and parts are difficult to come by. Surprisingly, though, the program has found no shortage of qualified technicians to maintain the wind-diesel systems, even in these remote villages.

As part of the research and development program, NREL has subcontracted a Russian firm to monitor wind speeds and develop a wind atlas for the region. After the 21 test sites have been demonstrated, NREL plans to help Russia apply for $300 million from the World Bank to equip all 900 sites in the region with wind-diesel systems.

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